President Carter will be urged this week to adopt an urban policy that seeks to take the middle ground in the explosive political issue of how to aid decaying cities without shortchanging other jurisdictions.
An 11-page memo from his top urban strategists, which is expected to go to the President by Friday, proposes a policy that gives priority - but not exclusive attention - to cities in distress.
The distinction is important because some state and local interest groups have feared that the administration was planning to tilt too far toward troubled cities with large numbers of poor people.
'If Carter focuses only on the big cities with the worst problems, he won't get his program passed by Congress simply because the cities alone don't have the votes," one lobbyist said yesterday.
His view was similar to that of Carter's domestic affairs adviser, Stuart E. Eizenstat, who said in a National Journal interview this week:
"It's difficult enough to get a program through Congress which targets money to any distressed area, because there are oftentimes more congressmen from non-depressed areas. When you then limit it even further by saying not only distressed, but only urban distressed, then you've got the political problem of whether than can be sold."
Because of this concern, an administration source said, the 11-page memo is essentially a fine-tuning of an earlier memo sent by Patricia Roberts Harris, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to the White House Dec. 23.
The new memo seeks to finesse the problem by making clear that "there is en enlargement of focus to show that the administration is concerned with new cities, old cities, growing cities, lagging cities, urban areas generally," the source said. "We still give a priority to cities in distress, but they are not the only focus," he added.
The new memo also includes stronger language on the importance of states, the private sector, neighborhood organizations and voluntary groups in dealing with urban problems, the source said.
"In the revision, which contains very few changes, there's a stronger sense that the federal government can't do it alone.The idea that the federal role must be shared is put in a more vivid, more visible way," he said.
Another source said representatives of state organizations met with White House officials last week and complained that in the Dec. 23 memo the states' role seemed to be an afterthought. "Now, it's clear their role is not an afterthought," he said.
The new memo was signed by Harris and Eizenstat after a meeting Monday in which they made final language changes, sources said. The memo was then circulated for comment to other administration departments that deal with urban matters.
Leaders of the National Governors Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National League of Cities expressed satisfaction yesterday with the memo's revisions.
They also noted that the document is only a statement of broad principles designed to gain wide political support and that the hard decisions are still to come. They will be made when Harris' Cabinet-level task force, the Urban and Regional Policy Group (URPG), submits the third draft of its recommendations for programs to implement the policy that President Carter finally adopts.
Those decisions involve such issues as how much the federal government should commit in new money for urban problems, how the funds should be doled out, whether states should have a major role in apportioning federal money to localities and whether there should be some new way to give federal grants and loans to private industry to invest in cities.
The URPG plans to submit its recommendations in mid-February to the White House so they can be considered for Carter's urban policy message March 15.
John Guntner, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said one indication of Carter's commitment to cities will be seen in his proposed budget for fiscal 1979, which is to be made public Jan. 23."If they don't put in overall amounts for any new urban initiatives, we're in real trouble," he said.
A HUD source said the revised policy memo was mutually agreed to by Harris and Eizenstat and that although the initiative for language changes came from the White House, "we got 99.8 per cent of what we wanted."
The feeling in some quarters that the administration was tilting too far toward the worst off cities resulted from a number of HUD initiatives. One, proposed last October, was a set of regulations that require communities to spend at least 75 per cent of the $3.5 billion they will receive this year in community development block grants on programs that directly benefit low-income and moderate-income people.
That proposal has produced strong criticism from many local officials who either don't want strings attached to the money they receive or who argue that some of the specifics are unworkable. HUD is expected to announce final regulations next month.
Harris also raised some urban hackles when she told a League of Cities convention Dec. 7. "I believe we will have an urban policy that addresses need, not greed." She urged the delegates, many representing affluent communities that receive large federal sums, "Don't use your power to deny aid to those cities in the greatest need."
While she also promised that the government did not plan to "rob St. Petersburg to pay Minneapolis-St. Paul," some officials said later they feared big-city favoritism.
Harris also said in an interview last month that she favored targeting federal aid to the cities for which "it is a matter of life and eath." She said she is convinced "we can't just throw the money up for grabs" between those cities that need it and those for which "it would be a convenience."
Finally, the Dec. 23 memo urged Carter to make the first objective of his urban policy the idea of "meeting emergency needs of communities and people in distress." That remains the first objective in the new memo, a source said.